The enlightened John Stuart Mill: on savages and English workers

I must admit, I still don’t get the excitement over the classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill. Intelligent they are not; dull ideologues of the ruling class they are. For instance, here is the ‘great’ Mr Mill on savages:

To civilize a savage, he must be inspired with new wants and desires, even if not of a very elevated kind, provided that their gratification can be a motive to steady and regular bodily and mental exertion. If the negroes of Jamaica and Demerara, after their emancipation, had contented themselves, as it was predicted they would do, with the necessaries of life, and abandoned all labour beyond the little which in a tropical climate, with a thin population and abundance of the richest land, is sufficient to support existence, they would have sunk into a condition more barbarous, though less unhappy, than their previous state of slavery. The motive which was most relied on for inducing them to work was their love of fine clothes and personal ornaments. No one will stand up for this taste as worthy of being cultivated, and in most societies its indulgence tends to impoverish rather than to enrich; but in the state of mind of the negroes it might have been  the only incentive that could make them voluntarily undergo systematic labour, and so acquire or maintain habits of voluntary industry which may be converted to more valuable ends (Principles of Political Economy, vol 1, pp. 104-5).

As for English workers, they are little better (quoting a certain manufacturer from the continental Europe):

“Whilst in respect to the work to which they have been specially trained they are the most skilful, they are in conduct the most disorderly, debauched, and unruly, and least respectable and trustworthy of any nation whatsoever whom we have employed; and in saying this, I express the experience of every manufacturer on the Continent to whom I have spoken, and especially of the English manufacturers, who make the loudest complaints. These characteristics of depravity do not apply to the English workmen who have received an education, but attach to the others in the degree in which they are in want of it. When the uneducated English workmen are released from the bonds of iron discipline in which they have been restrained by their employers in England, and are treated with the urbanity and friendly feeling which the more educated workmen on the Continent expect and receive from their employers, they, the English workmen, completely lose their balance: they do not understand their position, and after a certain time become totally unmanageable and useless.” This result of observation is borne out by experience in England itself. As soon as any idea of equality enters the mind of an uneducated English working man, his head is turned by it. When he ceases to be servile, he becomes insolent (p. 109).

But at least he is better than an animal, if only just:

All human exertion is compounded of some mental and some bodily elements. The stupidest hodman, who repeats from day to day the mechanical act of climbing a ladder, performs a function partly intellectual; so much so, indeed, that the most intelligent dog or elephant could not, probably,c be taught to do it. The dullest human being, instructed beforehand, is capable of turning a mill; but a horse cannot turn it without somebody to drive and watch him (p. 42).

At least there’s one benefit of reading all this dross: it makes you realise how good Marx is.


5 thoughts on “The enlightened John Stuart Mill: on savages and English workers

  1. Adam Smith appeared in a quirky little piece in today’s copy of the Otago Daily Times.

    “There is little economic history taught in our schools or universities these days. This seems based on the premise that current theory has solved the major economic issues.

    This is despite the occasional global financial meltdown, rising income inequalities and major environmental concerns. This disdain for the historical evolution of ideas in economics suggests an unwarranted faith in the validity of current theory.”

    – Peter Lyons, “‘Values free’ economics versus ideology”

    1. Which reminds me. I have begun the final chapter of Idols of Nations, on Mr Smith himself. If I may quote myself:
      “Adam Smith’s skill was storytelling, even myth-making of the first order. He was certainly not a great or an original thinker, borrowing most of his ideas from others. While this lack of originality or even of systemic thought is apparent to anyone who reads his work, I must admit it took me a while to realize where his appeal lies. While The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a banal work, Wealth of Nations is rambling, contradictory, often badly written, and invaded by polemic. Yet all this sits rather strangely with the popularity of his writing, both then and now. But he can tell a story in a way that draws in the reader. His work is full of vignettes, moral tales, parables, and grand myths, with scant regard for facts or empirical data. In this way, he was able to make accessible various ideas concerning economic thought at the time, offering not so much a synthesis that captured the imagination but a grand and imaginative narrative.”

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